Monday, October 4, 2010

Down With the Capitol! (Er, Wrong Capitol)

I admit, it's been a frenzy of book festivals this year. A veritable Book Festivalpalooza. Last week, I continued the streak with visits to both the Baltimore Book Festival and the National Book Festival in DC.

The day before, in Baltimore, the heat had been absolutely brutal, but I woke up to promises from numerous weatherpeople that Saturday would be about 15 degrees cooler and infinitely more bearable. The weatherpeople LIED. I propose they be punished by being dumped into an arena and having to fight to the death on live TV. Just a thought.

With the cruel sun beating down on us, Aine and I made our way to the National Book Festival, where Suzanne Collins would be speaking. I was so excited. When it comes to books, I'm hard to please, and it's a rare book that makes me fall in love the way Hunger Games did (I was deeply disappointed in Mockingjay though...don't get me started).

To a packed house (or rather, tent), Suzanne Collins started by talking about her background. She used to be a writer for such shows as Clarissa Explains It All, The Mystery Files of Shelby Woo, and Clifford's Puppy Days. Awww, Clifford, isn't that sweet?

Uh-huh. Keep that in mind as she segued into a discussion of her first book series, the Underland Chornicles, about a boy who falls into an underground world beneath New York City filled with giant cockroaches, rats, and other creatures. The way she structured it, the focal point of each of the series' five books centered around an aspect of war: For example, Book 1 was about an attempt to rescue a POW, Book 2 was about assassination, Book 4 was about genocide.

Assassination. Genocide. Clifford's Puppy Days. As Suzanne herself put it, she comes off as this cheerful, crunchy granola type but there's some dark, dark stuff in her head. Where'd it all come from? Well, it starts with her being a military brat. Her father was an officer in the Air Force, a specialist in international relations with a PhD who taught at West Point. And her father made sure his kids knew their history too.

The first movie Suzanne ever saw in a drive-in was Patton, she got to go to Waterloo, the site of Napoleon's defeat, for her 12th birthday. Her father would read the Roman classics out loud to her as a child.

Sometimes war hit closer to home though. When she was about six, her father was sent off to Vietnam. When Suzanne asked where he was going, she was told he'd be in the jungle. Well, everything she knew about the jungle at that point came from George of the Jungle, so she wasn't worried for her father, until the day she caught some war footage on the news and realized how much danger he was in. When her father returned, he was haunted by what he had seen and forever interested in the ethics and justness of war. He was also strongly opposed to the Iraq War.

As you can see, she poured many of her childhood experiences into the Hunger Games, but Suzanne was also strongly influenced by the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur. For those who don't know the story, after a bloody war between Crete and Athens, Athens was defeated and required every year to deliver seven of its finest young men and women to Crete to be devoured by the Minotaur. Suzanne noted that throughout Greek and Roman myth (and I'm sure in myths around the world), that the death of one's children is worse than your own death, because children are, quite literally, the future.

By the way, before I continue, I should note that this entire discussion was being held right next to this:

Just sayin'. So, besides Greek myth, Suzanne was strongly influenced by gladiator/toga movies. She's loved them since she was a little girl, when her family would have marathons of Spartacus and Ben-Hur on Easter. Having watched so many, she soon figured out that there were three key ingredients to a good gladiator movie: 1. A ruthless government 2. A fight to the death 3. The fight must be a form of popular entertainment. The Hunger Games certainly had all three.

Ultimately though, Suzanne got the idea for the Hunger Games when she was channel-surfing one day, and kept switching between images of Reality TV and the Iraq War. From there, the idea of Katniss just sprung into her head. She noted, having lived in Manhattan during 9/11 and seeing the effect the attacks had on her son, that children notice more than parents think when it comes to war. Her hope is that by starting a dialogue, and making children think about the impact of war early on, that there'll be greater support for non-violent solutions.

She then opened up the floor for a Q&A session. Having at that point only read about half of Mockingjay, I have to thank her for enforcing a strict no-spoilers policy. Here's some highlights:

* She used her experience on TV sets for many of the prep scenes leading up to Katniss and Peeta's television appearances.

* She was surprised by how many people were on Team Finnick.

* Asked to pick between Peeta or Gale, she demurred and said that when she was writing them, that she wanted both guys to be equally worthy.

* She loves to watch Glee, classic movies, the news, Masterpiece Theater, and Make It or Break It.

* Her favorite books include Percy Jackson, A Wrinkle in Time, and Boris, by Jaap ter Haar, the story of a boy trying to survive the siege of Leningrad.

* She refused to say where the various districts were, though she did mention that Panem included the US AND which district is responsible for hockey sticks and maple syrup? All she would say is that District 12 was in 'Appalachia' and that the Capitol was somewhere in the Rockies. Also, when she reads, she makes a point of using a 'futuristic Appalachian' accent for Katniss so that no one can accuse her of having an accent that's off.

* 13 districts = 13 colonies

After her talk, the plan was to get my copy of Mockingjay signed/stamped, but when I reached the line, it already had about 500 people in it, and everyone was roasting in the mid-day sun. Instead, I went off to grab a delicious and cool mango smoothie and then found Amy Brecount White (I swear I'm not stalking you, Amy!) at the National Botanical Garden, doing tussie-mussie demonstrations. Tussie-mussies are basically Victorian flower bouquets that hold special meanings. Here's a picture of the one I made, along with my copy of Mockingjay.

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